Acting out: how the arts support those in prison

From brass bands to acting troupes, arts projects in prisons can radically cut UK rates of reoffending. Clare Wiley reports

On a bright Monday morning in the small chapel at Thorn Cross Young Offender’s Institute in Cheshire, six men are doggedly practising on brass instruments. The session is part of a brass band project masterminded by Ewan Easton MBE, the Hallé orchestra’s principal tuba. Since its launch at the Warrington prison in 2004, the initiative – 12 weeks of music lessons culminating in a joint concert with members of the Hallé brass section – has reached over 300 prisoners, all aged between 18 and 25.

Easton bounds into the chapel and greets the players by their first names, shaking hands with each one. There’s a great atmosphere, a cheery absorption in noisy music-making – with just a hint of frustration when the odd note goes awry. The musician, a whirlwind of animated energy, settles himself next to Dave*, a thin dark-haired boy who’s been learning to play the baritone for just two sessions. Dave can already read music and play basic tunes. Today he’s playing Hot Cross Buns,but falters on a few notes. Easton doesn’t interrupt to start over; instead he continues to hum the notes until Dave catches up.

It’s important, he says, to keep going, not to be defeated by the difficult phrases. Easton’s repeated praise, never using a negative word, comes from a place of genuine encouragement. ‘It’s called completion of task,’ Easton says of his positive reinforcement methods, as Dave listens keenly. He equates the task of taking each piece of music bar-by-bar to the papers piling up on his desk; the trick, he says, is to tackle the job in stages.

Pointing to an illustration of a bicycle in Dave’s tutorial book – custom made by the Hallé for the project – Easton compares the process to carrying panniers on a bike: balancing attitude and knowledge on one side,with action on the other.

Next Easton takes a seat by Jack, a fair-haired young man who is learning the trumpet but is inhibited, Easton says, by perfectionsim. Again he simplifies the process by telling two more stories, comparing Jack’s experience to that of a highly-focused rally car driver, or a copilot who trains himself to taxi down the runway with precision.

These stories are designed to tackle Jack’s frustration at making mistakes, in fact he’s playing fairly tricky tunes with budding flare. Was he able to read music before he joined the group? ‘I played a little guitar and piano when I was younger, but didn’t like it,’ he answers. ‘It was always repeating the same thing. With this, there’s always something new to learn.’

 ‘They’re naked in front of us, really, and that’s what they fear most’

Across the chapel, James and Sam are being tutored by a member of Easton’s team, Michael Golding. ‘Can we play the Rocky theme now?’ asks James, whose fingers are tattooed with the word ‘hate’. He’s learning to play the euphonium, but is clearly growing impatient; after five sessions, he’s tired of practising scales. His reluctance prompts Sam, who has been learning the trumpet for seven weeks, to tell him to concentrate, and so they finish the piece together. The session concludes with a joint rendition of The Great Escape, something of a tongue-in-cheek theme tune for the band.

Easton is not alone in his vision for the Thorn Cross project; the Hallé is just one of several organisations around the UK currently reaching out to prisoners and ex-offenders by introducing them to the performing arts. Others include London’s Clean Break, a theatre company that works with women who have been through the criminal justice system, and Dance United in Yorkshire, which engages young offenders with contemporary dance.

Earlier this year composer Mark Anthony Turnage premiered Beyond This, a work performed by 15 prisoners in conjunction with Music in Prisons, a charity which delivers creative music projects in prisons. For the arts organisations involved, it’s challenging work. British prisons are overcrowded, violent and soulless places with high rates of suicide. And when inmates finish their sentences, they are often faced with few job prospects and little support from the community – reoffending is rife; two in five adults commit another crime within a year of their release, reportedly costing the government between £9.5bn (€11.45bn) and £13bn each year.

However, recent research from Arts Alliance, the national body for the promotion of arts in the criminal justice sector, based on the results of three organisations currently working with offenders, shows that artsbased interventions can dramatically reduce rates of reoffending.

Only Connect, a theatre group for prisoners and ex-offenders based in London, is one such company. The expected rates of reoffending for those taking part in its projects has more than halved due to the charity’s intervention. Originally 57.5 per cent of prisoners were expected to reoffend, but this has been cut to an expected 25.9 per cent following involvement with OC. Such initiatives appear to make good financial sense too; for every £1 invested in projects like these, the taxpayer saves around £4.50.

But what is it about the performing arts that has the capacity to really change lives for the better? Easton has his own theory – he believes that music education can be used as a vehicle to instil basic life skills that can then be applied in the real world. The mantra of the Thorn Cross project relies upon a number of core principles: certainty, variety, esteem, friendship and learning.

‘It’s about replicating principles that most of us had when we were young, from teachers and family, but they’re principles that weren’t there for these lads,’ Easton explains after the session. It’s easy to see why the group looks up to him; he doesn’t preach or patronise, he fervently believes in his method. He also has faith in the young players, many of who became involved in violence and drugs, and often lacked positive male role models. Easton teaches that the first step is simply staying focused, sticking at it.

‘They get some ribbing about being involved,’ says Easton, ‘and consistency is the name of the game here.’ After his first session, Dave didn’t want to come back, he explains, but after seeing the others rehearse, he eventually picked up his instrument and got stuck in. ‘He had to decide which pain was bigger – going back to the block and maybe being mocked, or missing out all together.’

‘There’s no hierarchy for this like there might be for something like football,’ adds John Platt, who’s in charge of learning and skills at Thorn Cross. ‘There are no more than two lads, if that, who have come into the project already skilled. They’re all on a similar playing field, so it strips away egos.’

‘They’re naked in front of us, really, and that’s what they fear most,’ Easton continues. ‘Dave epitomises this for me; he’s had to be extra hard and horrendous growing up. He’s gained esteem through being a pain, and his peers have been impressed by that. It’s about turning that confidence into something positive.’

That’s why every session starts and ends with a handshake, a common courtesy that immediately establishes mutual respect, explains Christopher Lydon, a musician in the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, and the third member of Easton’s team. ‘We also use their first names,’ he says. ‘The officers only call them by their last name and it dehumanises them in a way. We treat them with respect, treat them like adults, and that’s what they give back to us.’

What Easton provides too is unconditional encouragement – crucial for building real confidence. ‘They don’t even necessarily like classical music or know about it,’ Platt says, ‘but one session they were listening to a cassette of Nessun dorma. They asked “why can’t we play that?” The answer wasn’t, “because it’s too hard”. It was, “sure, let’s take it piece by piece, section by section”.’

Everything about the project encourages perseverance, patience, respect, commitment and confidence. All this is geared towards longterm rehabilitation. ‘This is a resettlement prison,’ says Platt. ‘We’re easing the lads back into society, preparing them for employment, with thinking skills so they can make better decisions next time. The Hallé complements those ideals.’

The group performs a public concert about once every 15 weeks at Thorn Cross, inviting members of the local community, a largely retired belt in rural Cheshire. ‘They play four pieces, then the Hallé brass quintet plays four pieces,’ says Platt. ‘That’s their platform. They’re suited and booted, and that’s their Royal Albert Hall on the last night of the Proms. They’ve stood up in front of their parents and their girlfriends and got massive applause.’

A recent concert was held for the European Prison Education Association’s conference in Manchester. ‘Potential employers heard them perform, they gave a standing ovation,’ Easton recalls,‘not for the quality of the music but because they were tackling it. You sensed that they were thinking, that’s someone I would employ.’

‘People ask me why I do this,’ Easton continues. ‘If it contributes in some way, to John’s work, to stop reoffending then that’s great.’ He says that because the cost of housing an offender at Thorn Cross is so high, reaching just one person and ensuring they don’t reoffend makes the project worthwhile.

Across the country, 200 miles away, in the basement of a former Baptist church in north London, a very different group of people gather. Some lounge on mismatched sofas, others are caught up in a game of pool, while another group loudly discusses politics, gender stereotypes and theatre.

This is the relaxed environment of Only Connect’s members’ club. One of three success stories of the Arts Alliance study, OC is an organisation based in King’s Cross that views prisoners, ex-offenders and young people at risk of crime as assets, not liabilities – and aims to encourage individuals to use their talents to help both themselves and the community.

‘Some of the worst crack addicts are the best actors – because it meets that craving for excitement’

The organisation is made up of three parts: OC Create’s 130 members (many of who are ex-offenders) produce and perform original theatre, film and music. OC Impact is a crime prevention programme, where members work with the Metropolitan Police in London’s schools and youth groups to reach out to teens in danger of committing crimes by using arts-based projects, personal stories and one-to-one support. OC Belong is a club for ex-offenders, essentially a homely environment that provides an encouraging space to chat, relax, create.

Maggie Norris, the artistic director of OC Create, leads the way into the quieter space of the club’s newly installed recording booth so we can talk. Why does she think OC has been so successful at preventing reoffending? ‘A lot of the young men we’ve met, who have been in trouble, and inside, lack a strong family base,’ she says. ‘We provide a family, a place of security and safety. We support them in everything that they’re trying to do; that might be helping with housing or benefits, relationship problems, getting a job. Once you’re a member, you’re a member for life. There’s a real community here, there’s great camaraderie between the guys.’

This noisy, boisterous but ultimately supportive family is the launch pad for creating truly provocative, expressive theatre. ‘What I’ve been trying to do here is produce work that is incredibly exciting and that stands out in the world of theatre,’ Norris says. ‘When we have the critics in, I don’t want them to be thinking this is going to be some kind of substandard naff community theatre, but actually this is very exciting. I have very high expectations of the members and they massively deliver.’

Last year Norris directed His Teeth, the dark but witty story of an illegal immigrant struggling to get by in London’s criminal underworld. Written by the Bruntwood prizewinning playwright Ben Musgrave, who was inspired by the experiences of ex-offender and OC member Ralph Ojotu, it was performed by five OC members and one professional actress.

The members have a powerful bond with the material, says Norris. Acting out their own stories, choices or mistakes is far more affective than performing Wilde or Shakespeare. ‘We’ve also found that there is a massive correlation between creativity and bad behaviour,’ Norris adds. ‘Some of the worst crack addicts are the best actors because it meets that craving for excitement, but channels it in a different way. A lot of people we work with just haven’t had the opportunity to do something that is stimulating and exciting in a completely different way – and so when given the opportunity, they’re quite knocked sideways by it.’

This kind of theatre demands a ruthless,often gruelling, self-reflection – more so than work experience, meetings or any other attempts to integrate ex-offenders back into society. ‘The experience of doing a play in itself is a fantastic thing in terms of confidence building, learning all the skills that you need to work with other people, being creative, learning to trust,’ says Norris. ‘But that’s not what’s really transforms. It’s that OC doesn’t give up on people.’

‘There have been a few people who have actually gone back to crime, which has been really frustrating – when you’ve been on a journey with them and they mess up and go back. But it’s a very long journey and it is kind of for life.’

‘Don’t get me wrong,’ Norris continues, ‘people don’t do a play and suddenly change, that’s not the case. But it’s the beginning of gaining confidence. For many it’s also the first time – apart from being in a gang – they’ve felt part of a team doing something together that is very positive and exciting.’

The OC team knows from experience that arts projects for offenders are effective: creativity compels people to change, and the positive results impact the wider community. Moreover, their work, along with the Hallé’s, has now been publicly vindicated with the results of the Arts Alliance study. So why aren’t these kind of projects more prevalent?

Whilst many organisations across the country work with prisoners and ex-offenders as the mainstay of their artistic output, there are few larger companies such as opera houses, orchestra or dance companies that develop the same initiatives. Arts outreach in schools and hospitals are extremely valuable, but it’s when looking at art through the veil of criminality – the much more challenging environment of the prison – that we can view it as a powerful force for real social change.

These kinds of projects should be part of how arts institutions earn their keep, their public funding, and demonstrate their value for all parts of society. Financing neverthless remains an issue. The Hallé’s project is funded through Manchester College, the education provider at Thorn Cross.

‘In the early days the project was funded through the Youth Justice Board and then Youth Music,’ says the Hallé’s education director Steve Pickett, ‘but as the programme became more and more successful, the prison system were keen to take it away from what then was called “Enhancement Time” i.e evening activities or something extra added onto the curriculum, [and assimilate it] into the main education programme. Hence, it now takes place in the daytime and is designed to reinforce the other learning programmes going on in the prison.’

Meanwhile, OC’s managing director Nate Sence explains that the organisation is largely dependent on individual donations and contributions from foundations. The company doesn’t receive any arts council or statutory funding, because as a theatre and also members’ club, OC’s activities do not easily fit within the remit of Arts Council England or the criminal justice department. But OC will be an ACE grant recipient for a new musical that is currently in development.

‘People don’t do a play and suddenly change. That’s not the case. But it’s the beginning of gaining confidence’

ACE spokesman Brian Maycock says that supporting projects in prisons does in fact align with the council’s 10-year plan ‘Achieving great art for everyone’, where the second goal is ‘more people experience and are inspired by the arts’. The projects funded by virtue of being one of ACE’s national portfolio organisations include English PEN; The Reading Agency; Clean Break; TiPP; Geese Theatre Company; Aldeburgh Music; and Glyndebourne Education. And those receiving grants for working with offenders include Synergy Theatre Project, Ten Ten Theatre and Not Shut Up magazine.

Maycock adds that supporting large institutions which work with offenders as part of their outreach also aligns with ACE’s priorities ‘but we make decisions on an individual basis, based around detailed project descriptions and organisational factors’. Certainly corporate support could be an area to explore for funding arts projects in prisons. In 2009, the security services firm G4S brought elements of the Hay Festival (a well-known literature event in the UK) to Parc Prison in Bridgend, South Wales. And last year David Cooney of Gorvins Solicitors was named Arts & Business Individual of the Year for his work with the Writers in Prison Network.

Easton points out that are also issues surrounding the praticalities of launching projects in prison. He experienced teething problems, and at first not everyone at Thorn Cross saw eye-to-eye. ‘Some [prison] officers didn’t understand why we were doing it,’ adds Lydon, ‘they thought it was just a doss, going into the chapel and playing music for a while.’

But once the practical and financial hurdles have been overcome, are there underlying ideological issues at play? Do some people feel prisoners and ex-offenders are underserving recipients of educational and artistic outreach projects? ‘I do get asked: “Why do they get the benefit of your tuition when students are queuing up for lessons from you?”’ admits Easton. But for him it’s about focusing on the bigger picture, investing in the future and finding more imaginative ways of reaching people who have committed crimes.

*Names of Thorn Cross offenders have been changed.